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The Rivers Sing to the Emperor: A Hebrew Poem of Victory for Joseph II

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

“To the God of Strong Places Sing in Thanksgiving” (Mantua, 1789). Title-Page in Hebrew and Italian. African and Middle Eastern Division.

The occasion was apparently too good to miss. After a 3-week siege that ended on October 8, 1789, the armies of Joseph II, Emperor of Habsburg Austria, wrested the stronghold of Belgrade from Ottoman hands and loyal subjects across the Empire were jubilant. Tributes to the victorious Emperor poured in, and in Mantua, a small city in Habsburg Italy, three Jewish poets decided it was time to add their voices to the chorus of praise. The result was a collection of victory odes lauding the Emperor in both Hebrew and Italian — and a unique little gem of a book housed today in the collections of the Library of Congress.

The book is called לאלהי מעוזים רני תודות (To the God of Strong Places Sing in Thanksgiving); the title, like the poetry itself, is a collage of biblical verses. But if the language is biblical, the forms of the poetry are pure Italian. The Jews of Italy had a long tradition of what is called “occasional poetry,” that is, Hebrew poems written for occasions all and sundry: weddings, the publication of a book, the completion of studies (medical or rabbinic), or the death of a great rabbi. These poems were usually printed on separate broadsides and handed out on the appropriate occasion. But there are also a fair number of poems in which Hebrew poets celebrated events in the lives of their princely rulers, and this book is a fine example. It is only unusual in being a collection of poems rather than a single broadside, and also, in being entirely bi-lingual: Hebrew on the left-hand page; Italian on the right. Interestingly, the book opens left-to-right Italian-style: clearly the authors envisioned a goodly number of non-Hebrew readers, and perhaps even dreamed of it reaching the Emperor himself.

Levi ben Gershon, “Commentary on the Pentateuch” (Mantua: Abraham Conat, ca. 1475). One of the earliest printed Hebrew books. African and Middle Eastern Division.

If it did, there was certainly nothing in it to dismay imperial eyes. The praise is fulsome; the language high-flown. There are biblical echoes throughout: one poem has the Austrian commander “rattling his spear to bring down the haughty;” another turns the Emperor into a Gideon chasing the Midianites – and we all know what happened to them. Poetic hyperbole? No doubt. Yet, exaggerations aside, Jewish reverence for the Emperor was genuine and well-documented.

Jews had lived in Mantua for centuries and they had an illustrious past. Rabbi Judah Moscato had preached his famous sermons from Mantua’s synagogue, and it was in Mantua that some of the earliest Hebrew books were ever printed.

Mantua had been home to the pioneering Jewish composer Solomon de’ Rossi, and to generations of Hebrew authors, poets, and commentators. But the Jews of Mantua had also experienced great disabilities as Jews, and, from 1610, the indignities of the ghetto. In 1782, Joseph II abolished many of the traditional restrictions with his Edict of Tolerance, permitting his Jewish subjects to attend state-run schools, purchase real estate, and stop wearing the Jewish badge. One of the poems in this collection even alludes to the edict by which the Emperor established his policy of toleration, but since the reference is predicated on a somewhat abstruse Hebrew pun (נשר as both “eagle” and “edict”), the meaning was spelled out in a footnote – just in case anyone missed it: Tolleranza Generale.

Detail [of Maria Theresa?] from title-page of “To the God of Strong Places Sing in Thanksgiving” (Mantua, 1789). African and Middle Eastern Division.
The Emperor’s allies also receive mention. In one Hebrew poem Catherine of Russia is called the “Mother of Wisdom;” in the Italian translation she is “wise,” “august,” and “enthroned on the Neva” (che sulla Neva siede). Tepid praise, to be sure, yet even this might be considered a tad much for a queen never regarded as any friend of the Jews – and who in fact instituted the hated Pale of Settlement only two years later. Interestingly, the tiny portrait at the bottom of the title-page also seems to represent another queen not known for being Philo-Semitic, and one imagines that this must be Maria-Theresa, engraved there in regal profile, in courtesy to her son the Emperor.

“Responsa of the Geonim” by Solomon ben Samuel Norsi (Mantua, 1597). African and Middle Eastern Division.

Surely the most unique poem in the collection is the one entitled “The Rivers Clap their Hands” (and on the facing page in Latin: Flumina plaudent manu), a phrase taken from Psalm 98:8. In point of fact, however, the rivers do more than clap their hands for the Emperor; indeed, they serenade him with their voices. The poem was written by “Maestro R[abbi] Solomon Norsa,” a namesake, no doubt, of the Jewish scholar who published a collection of rabbinic responsa some two centuries earlier in Mantua.

The poem is constructed as a dialogue between the Mincio and the Po, two rivers that in fact shape the landscape near Mantua, home to our three poets. But it was also the home of Virgil, the great Latin poet whose “Eclogues” celebrate “the verdant banks of the Mincio” (herboso flumine), and whose Aeneid crowns the river with “tender rushes” like a river-god. No doubt it was these ancient traditions of poetry that inspired our own poet, Solomon Norsa, to personify the two rivers and write his poem in dialogue-form.

Opening pages of the poem by Solomon Norsa “The Rivers Clap their Hands,” showing the Hebrew poem on the left and the Italian version on the right. From: “To the God of Strong Places Sing in Thanksgiving” (Mantua, 1789). African and Middle Eastern Division.

Like two river-gods out of the Classical past, the Mincio and the Po speak to each other across the valley, each marveling at the unusual brilliance of the day. The Mincio opens the poem, declaring that the Muses are singing from the cliffs; the honey simply dripping from the fruit. The Po observes that the very fish in the river sing psalms of praise. “What makes this day so special?” they both wonder. The answer arrives, four mellifluous stanzas later, in the form of a messenger – a personified “Martial Voice” in the Hebrew version (Exodus 32: 18); “Hercules” himself in the Italian – who announces the great victory of the Austrian host over Belgrade. The fortress has been stormed, the gates flung open, the Emperor’s eagle-standard planted “for all eternity.” And in the final chorus, the Po and the Mincio mingle their voices, just as in real life they ultimately mingle their waters, to proclaim that all creation delights in the great victory of Joseph II.

A paean of praise fit for an Emperor indeed.

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